In a deeply personal post, Mark Greene recalls the brutality of scouting. “Those who offered themselves up willingly, took savage beatings.”
I was twelve when I joined the Boy Scouts. I lasted about 18 months. I got a few merit badges. I went camping. I played capture the flag. But, all in all, I was not particularly inspired by Scouting. I remained at the Tenderfoot level until I quit. My recollections of Scouting are pretty hazy. There is a lot of information I simply couldn’t supply if you asked me. What was my troop number? Was my brother in the same patrol I was? Which kids from my school were there? For how long? Sorry, mostly hazy.
The people and names that do come back to me from Scouting are those tied directly to acts of cruelty or violence. My memories of those moments are quite clear.
Many of the kids in my troop also went to my Jr. High school. Coming in, we already had our places in the pecking order. We already knew where we stood. The difference was that we were in closer proximity to older boys, some of whom were four or five years our seniors. In Scouts, unlike school, there wasn’t the vast population of other students to hide among. We were isolated with these boys.
I first went to my first overnight Scout camp in the middle of summer. Each patrol in our Scout Troop had been assigned a camp site. We were to haul our packs in and get set up. We had only been there for a few hours when it started. The largest boys came racing though the campsites. There were five or six of them. They would spot a target, tackle him in the dirt, pin his arms and legs, pull up his shirt, and start slapping his stomach good and hard, a dozen or more times. The boy would scream and thrash under the assault. Often tears would come. The uproar echoed through the quiet woods. It is not possible that the Scoutmasters couldn’t have heard this. It hit me like an electric shock. The Scoutmasters were not coming to put an end to it. This was one of our troop’s rituals. Somewhere back along the trail, our Scoutmasters were calmly setting up camp. They approved of slapping a boy’s stomach until it turned an angry pink color. Giving pink bellies, they called it.
Each kid did his own survival calculations in the moment the pink bellies started. Some raced in to attack the victims, hoping to align themselves with the aggressors. This rarely worked. Their turns came soon enough. Others stood rooted to the spot, sickly half smiles on their faces, preferring to take their pain up front, than to be hunted over the length of the afternoon. “Maybe it’ll be less bad,” they might have thought, “if I don’t make them look for me.” It wasn’t. They weren’t taking into account the raging contempt for weakness inherent in actions of your garden variety teenage sadist. Those who offered themselves up willingly, took savage beatings. Passivity only inflamed the cruelty and contempt that drove the entire exercise.
For two seconds I stared, like a shocked pedestrian watching a bank robbery spill out onto a noontime city street. Then I dropped my pack and took off running, making a beeline into the woods away from the campsites. I stayed away from camp until late in the afternoon, sitting on a log, fighting a combination of prickly fear and disgusted boredom.
I recall how uniform and dull the woods were. Mostly scraggly new growth pine trees and poison ivy as far as the eye could see. Somewhere, Boy Scouts were camping in the inspiring grandeur of Yosemite Park, but not us. We were in the pine woods of east Texas, where only the mosquitoes were seeing anything that inspired them. Eventually, I made my way back into the quiet campsite. The storm had passed. This was day one of my introduction to Scout camping. Where capture the flag could drift off course into Lord of the Flies at a moment’s notice. All of it stank of overheated sour sweat and fear. ”
A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind…
This is the insidious impact of bullying on children. It becomes the primary filter for their experience of the world. What might have been a vibrant, exciting week at a wonderful camp becomes instead a deadening scramble to avoid eye contact, proximity and exposure. When bullying takes root, engagement, high ideals, learning, hope and self esteem fall by the wayside. They cease to have relevancy. The full focus of a child’s world becomes when and where a stranger’s angry, sweaty hands will be put on them, day after day after day.
How victims experienced their abuse very clearly reflected each individual’s relative social status and level of self esteem. Was their moment of being abused an acknowledgement of their promise as a rising member of the group? Or was it a reinforcement of their otherness; their lack of access going forward? It was case by case. But the abuse rarely varied. It was how the victim interpreted these acts, coupled with whether or not they also participated in the abuse of others, that fully informed their experience of it. The smaller kids among us obviously didn’t take it well at all. We weren’t being initiated. We were just being brutalized. We were the victims of a simple chronological joke. The punchline was puberty. Over and over again.
We attending our Scout meetings at the local Presbyterian Church on one evening a week. Thursday evenings, I think. This was the same church my mother and stepfather took me to every Sunday. It didn’t help that our church was already ground zero for emotionally vacant, intellectually vacuous, spiritual malaise. The church’s “fellowship hall” was a large wood paneled basketball court. We had our assigned places to stand, grouped by patrols. I can’t recall who was in my patrol.
Roughhousing is one of the social currencies of boyhood. Typically boys do wrestle, kick and so on. In the group of boys from our street, there was a range of physical size, economic status, and social aptitude. We were all about the same age, but we were very different in terms of our status in the world. The alpha boys wrestled those boys who were on next rung down; who wrestled the littlest of us. But on our street, the roughhousing was among boys who had spent long years together. There was some honest friendship mixed in. And most importantly, I often saw real restraint from those guys. As a smaller kid, I was rarely pushed around unless I initiated it.
But Scouting was different. Like school, it incorporated aggression from strangers to strangers. There existed the idea that the bigger kids could lay hands on anyone they wanted to. The crazy part is, we all accepted it. We all EXPECTED it. We thought it was normal. That was just being a kid in those days. As the father of an eight year old boy, I am working to insure that being a kid is different now. But in case it isn’t, my son is in karate.
In Scouting, you move up in the ranks by mastering skills and earning merit badges. It was at camp that we held the ceremonies by which our accomplishments were acknowledged and we advanced. Part of this advancement process was initiations. On one night, all those in the troop who were advancing, as well as those of us who had failed to advance, would undergo individual initiations created by the older campers and Scoutmasters.
My initiation was fairly lack luster. I have written before about my strategies for avoiding being a victim. But some of the younger guys in our troop took a real pounding. And as much as I sympathized with them, I left them to their fate. I understood them to be so intensely awkward that any association with them could have rubbed off on me with catastrophic results.
Take Hayward for instance; the boy who’s earnest, pseudo-military enthusiasm for Scouts was beaten down in short order. Hayward’s uniform was ironed. His pants literally had a crease. He wore that uniform with pride, his shirt tucked in neatly, his collar buttoned up smartly. Hayward had a huge forehead. There’s no two ways around it. The guy’s forehead was massive. When he dropped those horn rimmed glasses on the brim of his nose, the collective effect was equivalent to a blinking neon sign that said “Please make my life a living hell.”
Personally, I always like Hayward. He had a open earnest quality. He was a chess club kid. He meant no one any harm. Hayward and I shared some similar challenges. Like his mom, my mother was hell bent on making me into a punching bag at school. She insisted I have a burr haircut. Something which would be quite stylish in current hip-hop circles but which, back then, was the kiss of death. But she didn’t end her efforts there. During a time when most kid’s blue jeans had holes in the knees, she took mine, cut them off above the knees, and hemmed them neatly. I was at severe risk for being confused with Little Lord Fauntleroy. Each day was a frantic exercise in trying to undo her work on the way to school. Untucking my shirt. Hanging a cigarette on my bottom lip. Anything I could do to not look like a primary target.
Hayward wasn’t so adapable.
The night of Hayward’s initiation, I heard him screaming somewhere off in the woods. It was the sound a trapped, terrified animal makes. I was not witness to what happened, but I saw him later at the cold outdoor showers where he stood well past midnight trying to wash himself clean. I found out then what they had done to him.
They had taken Hayward into the woods and made him strip down to his shorts. They smeared peanut butter all over him. In the beam of a flashlight, they showed him an ant bed on the ground at his feet. They stirred up the ant bed. These were red fire ants whose sting is extremely painful. They blindfolded Hayward. They threw dirt on him and began poking him with hand fulls of pine needles. He didn’t know it was pine needles. He thought he was covered in red ants. He began screaming.
It took Hayward most of the night to wash off the peanut butter in the cold showers. I recall some guys where there with him, keeping him company. It was too much for any of us to just ignore. It was too cruel. I wish I could remember who was there with him. I would name them and thank them here. But I don’t remember. I don’t think I stayed long. Again, probably for fear of attracting collateral damage. My plight was too similar to Hayward’s. But I remember seeing him the next morning. His pale skin fiery red and raw from hours of scrubbing. He was exhausted. His eyes hollow. Within a day or so he regained his plucky cheerfulness, but the wariness he acquired that night stayed with him. Maybe he thought Scouts would be different with all the talk about honor, kindness, country, reverence and god.
Too bad it was all bullshit.
And then there was Randy. He was our age. He was one of the good looking, confident kids. He had charm and size and was one of those kids who never lacked for something to say or somewhere to go next. He eventually ended up on the football team. He eventually ended up with the tall blonde wife and the two heart attacks.
Randy’s initiation comes back to me very clearly because I was right there watching. I was looking right down on him as a crowd of boys pinned him down, yanked down his underwear and broke a raw egg over his exposed genitals in the midday sun. I kid you not. Now, I definitely didn’t help pin him down and I certainly had no idea what they were going to do until the raw egg appeared and his pants came down. It was shocking to me. I can still see the raw egg running across Randy’s naked skin.
As I recall, Randy took it all in stride. Another kid would have been humiliated, but not Randy. By all appearances, he viewed it as a sign of his status, that such a wildly ambitious and crazy initiation was cooked up just for him. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but that’s the impression I was left with. If I’m wrong, Randy, I’m sorry. But you were one emotionally tough kid.
During the time I was part of the troop, no conversation was ever held about any of these behaviors. No Scout was ever reprimanded for being a bully.
I honestly do not know what part of being a man feeds into the cruel cycle of initiations that dominate some male organizations. To this day, university fraternities continue to conduct initiations that get hopeful, socially needy young men killed. (Want a shock? Click on the link.) These young men die trying to drink two quarts of gin locked in the trunk of a car, or smothered as the sides of a grave collapse in on them while they lay naked and shivering in the bottom, looking up the senior members of their would-be brotherhood. Less ritualized initiations take place daily in the good old boy clubs of corporations and public institutions, where dishing out cruelty is meant to somehow validate men as creatures who can “take it.”
Take it. Is that what men were born to do? Take it? If so, we are a doomed species, slogging our way through systems and organizations of our own creation that require we suffer at the hands of those who came before us so that those who come after can suffer at ours. What is it about being a man that so easily embraces this kind of vicious institutionalized cruelty? What is it about being a man that we allow this kind of ritualized abuse to continue to this day? Why do some men express their power by abusing those weaker than them, when, in fact, weakness should be defined as the need to abuse anyone ever, at any time.
I realize that women can and do commit acts of cruelty. But as a boy, I did not fear girls. I did not fear women. I feared boys and men. They were the threats I had to track each and every day. They were the reason I had to hide and run and fight and fear. It was them. As a man and a father, I am committed to putting an end to bullying in all its forms. We’re better than this. Our sons are better than this.
As for my initiation? Oh yeah. Well, as I said, that was pretty lackluster. I was taken out in the dark woods, blindfolded and made to sit. They pissed a ring around me and told me not to move. When their footsteps had faded away, I took off my blindfold and walked back to camp.
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